King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
by Peter VineyCopyright © Peter Viney 1997
Written by Robbie Robertson.
I remember gazing from a freezing cold Oxford Street into the windows of the HMV record store in London. The three Christmas displays in late 1969 were Abbey Road, Let It Bleed … and The Band. Not a bad year, then.
The cover touched something in my imagination. A sense of longing. And I hadn’t even heard it. The first track I heard? Easy. It was King Harvest on late night BBC television, accompanied by a weird black and white 1920’s cartoon. I couldn’t believe the oddness of the sound. The great spaces in the music. The yearning keening voices; the odd stumbling arrangements. The dead slap of the drums. It was like nothing I’d heard before. Maybe it was better than anything I’ve heard since. Later - too many weeks later -I listened through the album with a sense of disbelief. It encompassed an America of the dreams. It rooted music after the dweebling sounds of Pink Floyd and the pretentions of early King Crimson. The up-and-coming Chicago seemed merely workmanlike. Half my record collection seemed as dull and well meaning as Chicago Transit Authority. The Stones were raw and tough, but oddly hairless - oddly chinless even. The Beatles were producing sublime sounds, but it was St. Petersburg 1917. On the West Coast all was mellow. But some British musicians felt that Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead had traded musical competence away for the sake of originality. They were into Alvin Lee and how fast you could play. Bob Dylan was meandering through the backwaters of his roots on Nashville Skyline. The Band had it all - rawness, competence, sublimity, experience, originality and roots.
The sleeve (58K GIF) featured a photo by Elliot Landy, framed in soft brown board (at least in earlier versions - glossy ones a few years later looked terrible). Originally it was to be the backs of their heads, but they were advised to switch!  The rear picture (26K GIF) shows them as a country band, Richard at piano, Robbie on a small acoustic guitar, Levon standing by the wood rimmed kit which features a painting of (King) Harvest on the skin, Garth with accordion and Rick with a double bass.
King Harvest is a hard one for me to assess. If The Weight started my own interest in The Band, this song consumated it. To me, it is the most important song on the album, and while a handful of Band songs might equal it, none have ever surpassed it. 
Sleeve notes to ‘Anthology’ Volume 1
So many things about the song are odd, above all, can you think of any other rock song where the chorus is actually way quieter than the verse? The chorus is soothingly evocative, a whispered entreaty, in contrast to the harsher voice of the narrator, the farmer or sharecropper or whatever you want to call him.
Levon plays his ultimate drum part, where the cymbals whisper like the wind through the rice, where the hard slap of the drums shove home the farmer’s plight. Robbie Robertson isolates the bass and drum on the Classic Albums video. For him the rhythm section is the whole basis of the song. Rob Bowman says that the ending of King Harvest might be Robbie’s finest moment as a guitarist, in a style Andy Gill later described as ‘death-by-a-thousand-delicate-cuts’  and Bowman goes on to quote Robertson:
To me, the instruments all assume distinct personalities, reflecting and commenting on the lyrics. There’s the guitar, picking, plucky, strutting and wirey, creating an argumentative extra line. Then there’s the bass, dogged, persistent. These are the farmer. The extended notes of Garth’s organ are a contrast, with the irresistible sweep of history resonating through them. Then the drums, the inexorable thump of the seasons changing, the rustle of the wind.
Robbie said he’d been immersed in the novels of John Steinbeck. Ralph Gleason picked up on The Grapes of Wrath - the John Ford movie rather than the original John Steinbeck book - when he reviewed the album for Rolling Stone. We’re right in that territory - the line between independent sharecropper, the grandson of Virgil Kane, and industrial unionised worker was thin and getting rapidly thinner when Steinbeck researched the trek of the landless Okies from the dried-up homesteads of the dust bowls of Oklakoma to the wage-slavery of fruit picking in California in the 1930’s. When the story is recalled, the perjorative ‘Okies’ for Oklahomans is always remembered, because the central Joad family were Okies . If you look back to the Steinbeck book, you’ll find that the other group of farmers ruined by the dust bowl were the ‘Arkies’ from Levon’s home state of Arkansas.
What had happened was this. When settlers arrived in the former Indian Territory, which became Oklahoma, in the 1880s and 1890s, the region was enjoying a short, unusually wetter spell which supported farming, and which persisted until the late 1920s. The drought of the late 20s / early 30s was not so much something abnormal, but simply a return to the naturally arid climate of the area. The same happened in the west of Arkansas. With the top vegetation stripped by intensive farming, the whole area became literally a bowl of fine dust. The banks foreclosed on the poverty-stricken farmers. They were starving and dispossessed. They loaded up their few possessions on battered Model-T Fords and trekked west to California where they could earn subsistence wages in the burgeoning fruit plantations. They became white slaves.
But on the surface King Harvest takes place further south than Steinbeck’s Oklahoma. It never mentions the dust bowl specifically for that matter. If they’re listening to the rice when the wind blows across the water, they’re probably back down in the Mississippi Delta of Louisiana as in Cripple Creek (and most of Robertson’s Storyville solo album.) I’m sure people can tell me where else rice is grown, but that’s the primary image. Robbie Robertson has a knack for combining disparate images and getting resonance from both of them.
Ralph Gleason’s original review also invoked James Agee’s non-fiction book on the 1930’s Deep South, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  The book is actually credited to James Agee and Walker Evans, with Evans’ evocative photographs of sharecropping families accompanying Agee’s innovative text. As such it was a literary departure, and for me it would be Walker Evans stunning photographs which hold the key to the song - and I imagine Elliot Landy (who did the cover pictures of The Band) would be the first to agree. He deliberately evokes Walker Evans. In the video documentary Classic Albums, they illustrate this song’s section with Walker Evans’ still pictures, and clips from the John Ford movie.
The song is set in fall.
It’s Fall, and so there’s a carnival at the edge of town, well, pretty soon. It’s Fall and a time for new hope. The farmer begins by boldly stating his new identity as a union member. But he still depends on wetter weather in the Fall. For Fall brings new promise. Incidentally, Hey rainmaker, won’t you hear my call is interesting given Garth’s reputation for dowsing for water. Levon describes the 1973 concert at Watkins Glen where they were forced off stage by rain as heavy as ‘a cow pissing on a flat rock’ . The day was saved by Garth’s extraordinary organ solo  , played until the storm passed over, which left Levon wondering if Garth’s dowsing talents were working in reverse.
The farmer’s horse, Jethro, went mad at the same time. Probably it was his only horse. A man came with a paper and pen, telling him that the hard times are about to end. This echoes Bob Dylan echoing Woody Guthrie (in turn echoing Abraham Lincoln), ‘some folks rob you with a fountain pen.’ And the farmer swallows the line,
If they don’t give us what we like
The farmer’s left. Proud. Cocky. Bristling with self identity.
But after the song has ended, after the farmer’s had his say, then in the mind’s eye, we can see the hired strike-breakers already beginning to assemble round the bend in the road, huge men, batons in their hands … and they’re going to beat the shit out of him. Yes, the story continued for me after the song’s lyrics had ceased. For Greil Marcus too, who saw the ‘bitter steel mills’ of the New South as the place where the farmer ended up, with no textual evidence. But he’s right. The story does continue. 
King Harvest was revisited on Rock of Ages, and features on most concert tapes up to 1976 (see for example the Live At The Hollywood Bowl 1970 and Live in Washington 1976 bootlegs.) It didn’t make either The Last Waltz or Live At Watkin’s Glen. It’s also on both of the 1980s videos with the Cate Bros. It was a central part of their stage act. None of them touch the original. It’s so deeply involved with Richard Manuel that it would seem hard for them to do a version nowadays.
Official versionsThe Band
Rock of Ages
Reunion Concert (aka The Band is Back)
BoootlegsLive At The Hollywood Bowl, 1970 / Crossing The Great Divide
Live in Washinton (sic) / Ophelia (i.e. King Biscuit Flower Hour, 1976 concert in various incarnations)
Copyright © Peter Viney 1997.